Horseback Riding Attire: What You Should Wear

What to Wear When Horseback Riding

Appropriate horseback riding attire will help keep you comfortable, flexible, and most importantly, safe. If you’re going to be riding a horse, you will need to be prepared with the right clothing and shoes. 

What should you wear to go horseback riding? Wearing an ASTM-certified riding helmet is vital for riding safety, and many barns will require the use of a helmet while working with their horses. In addition to a helmet, a rider should wear boots with 1-1.5” heels, pants, and a comfortable but form-fitting shirt. 

Keep reading to learn more about the specifics surrounding horseback riding attire, including what kind of pants are best for riding, why loose-fitting shirts are not ideal, and why shoes with heels are necessary. 

Horseback Riding Attire: What to Wear on Your Head

Whether you’re riding English or Western, the first thing you will want to have with you when you go riding is your helmet. Knowing the statistics surrounding serious injuries and horseback riding makes it much easier for me to grab my riding helmet instead of my cowboy hat. Horseback riding is considered the #1 cause of traumatic brain injuries in adults (#3 for children) by a landslide – 45% of adult TBIs are a result of a horse-related incident. Surprisingly, the majority of these occur on the ground and not in the saddle, meaning that you should wear a helmet when working around horses, not just when riding them.

Before you grab just any helmet that’s lying around, you should know that only ASTM/SEI helmets that are certified for horseback riding are adequate. Bike helmets are not designed to protect your head when you fall from the height of a horse. Also, once a helmet has experienced an impact, it is no longer considered safe for use. That means if your helmet has protected your head in a fall, thank it, and trash it – it’s time for a new one.

What about cowboy hats?

If you attend a Western show, you will probably see very few helmets. That doesn’t mean that Western riding is any less dangerous than English riding. You will see fewer helmets in a Western arena; this simply comes down to culture. Western riders historically wear cowboy hats. While cowboy hats offer an advantage when herding cattle in the sun all day, they will not protect your head from an impact. I love cowboy culture, but I don’t let it determine what I wear on my head when I’m in a Western saddle. 

Horseback Riding Attire: What to Wear on Your Feet

While we’re on the topic of safety, let’s talk about shoes. All riding boots will feature a heel of at least 1-1 ½ inches in height. This has nothing to do with fashion; the heel is designed to prevent your foot from slipping through the stirrup while riding. Why is this important? If your foot slips through the stirrup and becomes caught, you will be dragged by your horse should you fall off. Being dragged with your foot caught in the stirrup puts you at risk for serious injury. 

It’s also important that your shoe be tough enough to protect you from a wayward hoof. Almost no footwear will protect your foot from injury should your horse stomp on it, but most hoof-foot interactions occur accidentally. A tough leather upper will protect your foot from a misstep better than the fabric upper of a sneaker. I have a pair of steel-toed boots that also do a good job at protecting my feet.

There are different styles of horseback riding boots. Western boots, or “cowboy boots”, come in various designs, from the aesthetic to the functional. There are boots designed for roping, for reigning, and for trail riding. There are tall boots and shorter boots. Toes can be rounded or pointed. Soles may be made from leather or rubber. I prefer leather soles that slip easily in and out of the stirrup, but this is a matter of preference. When looking for boots, I recommend going into a store to try on several pairs to see what feels right to you. 

English boots will also come in a wide variety of styles, though they are typically less “adorned” than their Western counterparts. English boots can be tall or can be short. They can come with laces or with zippers. In general, the shorter English boots are called “paddock boots.” I’ve had success purchasing paddock boots online; check out my Amazon Storefront here for boot recommendations.

Horseback Riding Attire: Choosing the Right Pants

Choosing the right pants for horseback riding will depend on your discipline. If you’re riding English, breeches or jodhpurs are the way to go. They are designed very similarly, with breeches typically being a bit shorter than the longer jodhpurs. Both pants are like durable leggings, are comfortable and form-fitting enough not to inhibit your movement, and will allow you the most contact with your horse. I love my jodhpurs; they are so comfortable I wear them around the house just as often as I wear them to the barn!

That said, jeans do have their place, and I prefer them over breeches and jodhpurs when riding Western. Because the Western saddle is so much larger than the English saddle, your legs and seat have more contact with the leather than with the horse. When I’ve ridden in a Western saddle with my jodhpurs I’ve felt much more “slippery” than when I wear denim. 

Horseback Riding Attire: Choosing the Right Shirt

More often than not, I wear a cotton T-shirt when I’m riding for pleasure. One of the most important considerations when choosing a shirt to wear while riding is how it will interfere with the tack and with your movements. Shirts that are either too baggy or too tight will require frequent adjustments while in the saddle which is a big distraction. 

Another option is a workout or dry-fit shirt. These are ideal when riding in the heat and are typically designed to be form-fitting. If you will be riding in the sun, a long-sleeved shirt that protects you from the UV rays may be the right choice. 

Horseback Riding Attire: Wearing Accessories

Your main concern when deciding what to wear while horseback riding may not be accessories, but there are some considerations to make here. Consider your earrings. I’ve lost earrings in the past while riding – if you’re going to wear any jewelry, make sure it is secured and all earrings have backs. Some horse shows have rules against wearing jewelry while competing. Lastly, when I’m wearing riding gloves, I don’t wear my wedding ring. Having a ring become caught on the knitting of your gloves can be distracting while you’re riding.

What to Wear When Horseback Riding in Cold Weather

Not to brag, but I have become a master at dressing for warmth in the winter because I absolutely hate the cold. I have discovered an equation of clothing that keeps me warm while also maintaining mobility for riding.

  • Under Armor base layer (undershirt and long underwear) + long-sleeve shirt + wool socks + breeches + pull-over + insulated outer jacket layer + insulated leather gloves = warmth.

Is it necessarily pretty? Actually, it doesn’t look too bad. Leather-insulated gloves are the only gloves I’ve found that will keep my hands warm for long periods of time. Click here to check out the pair I always get.

When Horseback Riding, Safety and Function Trump Fashion

Every sport has its uniform – soccer players wear shin guards and cleats, gymnasts wear leotards and wrist supports, and hockey players wear just about everything. In every case, the uniform is determined by the safety and functional needs of the sport, not by what is fashionable – this is also true for horseback riding. 

Horseback riding helmets are paramount when it comes to safely riding. They are so important, in fact, that most lesson barns will not allow a person under 18 to work with or ride their horses without a helmet. While boots are admittedly often worn as a fashion statement, the safety of their heels makes them non-negotiable when riding with stirrups. Even a rider’s pants serve a purpose while riding. Jodhpurs and breeches are designed specifically for horseback riding, after all, and there is no better option when riding English than these. While there are certainly fashionable footwear, breeches, and yes, even helmets to choose from, it is the safety and the function of the apparel that really matters.

If you’re new to horseback riding and need apparel recommendations, check out my Amazon Storefront here.

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